Sup. Niagara Falls
As Paul Harvey used to say, "and now for the rest of the story …"
Recently, more than one media outlet has publicized area graduation and drop-out rates, citing Niagara Falls Schools as having the lowest graduation rate and highest drop-out rate in the County.
Merely comparing four-year cohort rates doesn't tell the whole story, and ignores relevant data that should be considered.
The first piece of data one must look at is demographics. This is not surprising, as the District has many times referenced the challenges it faces in terms of poverty, single-parent households, and a higher-than-average population of special needs students.
Compare, for example, the median household income in Niagara County as a whole, $47,736 to that of Niagara Falls, $33,324.
More than 22,400 of Niagara Falls' 50,195 residents live on incomes under or near the federal poverty level. Teen pregnancy rates are higher in Niagara Falls than anywhere else in the County. Despite the efforts of a well-regarded police force, crime rates are high. In the course of a year, more than one of every 100 people will be the victim of violent crime in Niagara Falls, murdered, raped, robbed, or assaulted.
It doesn't take a social scientist to see that community schools serve just that: the community, and issues in the community become factors in schools' success.
Also worth noting is the relatively high number of Niagara Falls students who require Individualized Education Plans, i.e., special needs students. The Niagara Falls School District typically has more than 14% of all students who require such plans, with 2.5% so severely disabled that they are in an IEP program to work toward an IEP certificate, not a high school diploma. When those students complete the IEP program successfully, they are still considered non-graduates for State reporting purposes.
Additionally, more than nine percent of those who began freshman year in 2009 had a maximum attendance of one day at Niagara Falls High School or were never enrolled there at all. That's because they were instead attending schools elsewhere, like Stanley G. Falk School, Gateway-Longview, or schools for the deaf or blind. Of that number, 32% percent dropped out. None of these received direct instruction from District teachers or schools, yet the District is still responsible for reporting purposes because those students reside in Niagara Falls.
Finally, consider this: when a student of compulsory attendance age fails to attend school for a number of consecutive days, has no legitimate excuse, and cannot be located by the District—and this happens more often than one would think -- those students are considered by the State to be 'Disappeared Students.' The District attempts to locate such students but is often told by neighbors that the family left or moved out of State. However, unless and until they register with another District in the State, they still count as District students, even if no district in the State ever sees them again.
Does the District have a truancy program? Yes. Are there programs and resources offered to students in need? Yes. Are they working? Not all the time for 100% of our students. There is a significant percentage of our students facing serious challenges in their personal lives, and as a District we are doing all we can to try to help.
Also note that New York State allows a student five years to graduate high school; when you factor in the students who have completed high school at the end of five years, the graduate rate jumps to 74%. Good enough? No. But a lot more fair assessment of overall success.
And guess what: the answer to improved graduation rates and lower dropout rates lies in more than the District alone. It is an easy side-stepping of responsibility to blame public schools for all social challenges. As a community, we have to work together to address all the issues impacting these students. We can't simply send children to school and ignore facts like hunger, undesirable living situations, sometimes troubled guardians, transience, crime, and the other unfortunate realities some of our students face daily.
The District is often cited by the State as evidencing best practices, makes two free meals a day available to every student, provides the most current, evidenced-based teaching methodologies and first rate facilities to our students. We admire and appreciate the many people in our community who are also working to improve children's and families' lives. Together, we can improve the future for our youth, and it will take us all, working together, to do that.